São Bento’s tiled entrance hall
The main railway station in Porto is famous for its tiled walls. Dating back to 1896 (although the official opening was in 1916), the station reminds me of Brighton station every time I arrive there. It’s full of light, colour and immediately take you back to the times when rail travel was more than just about getting from A to B.
Unlike a standard train station, the platforms aren’t the busiest area. The entrance halls with display boards actually has the largest number of people milling around, and most of them are tourists taking photos of the blue and white azulejo tiles which adorn the walls. Telling stories of major events in Portuguese history, these were designed to educate even those who could not read at a time when transport and travel became more accessible for all classes.
The grand entrance hall has been modernised with LCD screens indicating departure times but overall it still has an old-world feel. As well as an old clock in the stained glass window, there are original signs which indicate arrivals and departures and the roof in the platform area brings in much needed light on a rainy day.
There are 20,000 tiles on the walls of São Bento train station and every single one is tin-glazed. Tiles are a famous Portuguese export and much like the pottery and glassware made at Vista Alegre, the Portuguese still maintain their high quality levels and are famed for their production, holding strong against cheaper imports from other countries.
The tiles were painted in 1905 and 1906 by the artist Jorge Colaço, known at the time as the best producer of azulejo tiles in Portugal. Needless to say, given that this is a must-see place for anyone visiting Porto, his toil was well worth it.
One of the platforms in São Bento
The main cross country and inter-country (trains to Spain and beyond up through France) leave from Porto Campanhã so if you’re just passing through and you have the time, it’s definitely worth catching the train to São Bento (3 minute journey) to see the tiled walls, Victorian ironwork and the sun glinting through the roof windows.
Alcobaça is another of Portugal’s hidden gems. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s brimming with history. Alcobaça centres around a stunning monastery which can be admired from cafés in the town’s main square or from the old castle, perched about ten minutes walk away.
A view over Alcobaça
My first visit to Alcobaça coincided nicely with their annual sweet exhibition – the International Conventual Sweet and Liqueur show (Mostra Internacional de Doces e Licores Conventuais). Since 1999 it has taken place every year in November, and has a growing number of international companies taking part. The show initially focused on cakes, sweets, jams and liqueurs made using traditional processes by nuns and monks. It has grown to include businesses from across Portugal selling sugar infused goodies made the old fashioned way but the nuns are still present with lots of lovely food to try. Top picks include Ovos Moles, Ginja and pão de Ló. Well worth a day’s diversion on any holiday in Portugal, just make sure you take a big shopping bag for the cakes on offer.
Now that summer is well and truly here in Portugal, the square in front of the monastery is the ideal location to relax in the sun with a slice of cake and a coffee after exploring the cool interiors of this 12th century Cistercian monastery. Founded in 1153 by the first king of Portugal, Afonso Henriques, it was, along with its church, the first gothic building in Portugal. Containing magnificent carvings, the two most important historic features within it are the tombs of King Pedro I of Portugal and his lover, Ines de Castro, his true love, who was assassinated under orders of his father. The impressive kitchen includes an awe-inspiring floor to ceiling chimney and the gardens, where the exhibition now takes place, are the perfect place to wander at snail’s pace.
Tickets are €6.00 per person with varying discounts for students, over 65s and families. A combination tickets for monasteries on the Patrimonial Route (three in total are €15 per person). On Sundays and Bank Holidays, entry is free before 2pm.
The monastery at dusk